Born in Little Rock in 1887, Florence Beatrice Smith Price became the first African-American female composer to have a composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra. Her classical piece, Symphony in E Minor, was performed by the Chicago Symphony of Orchestra in 1933. It was also performed at the Chicago World’s Fair as part of the Century of Progress Exhibition.
She composed more than 300 works in her lifetime, including chamber music, vocal compositions and songs for radio. Her style is a mix of classical European music and black spirituals and rhythms.
Florence was first introduced to music by her mother — a piano teacher and businesswoman — and she published her first original pieces in high school. She finished as a valedictorian in 1903 and attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she graduated with honors in 1906.
She returned to Arkansas to teach music in Arkadelphia, then at Shorter College in North Little Rock, finally landing in Atlanta to head the music department at Clark University. She married in 1912 in Little Rock, and had three children, one who died in infancy. In Little Rock, she opened a music studio, taught piano and continued to compose, but was not allowed to join the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association because of her race.
Segregation and racial discrimination in the South eventually prompted Florence and her family to move to Chicago in 1927 where she had several works accepted for publication, including her Piano Sonata in E Minor. She also won first prize in the Rodman Wanamaker Music Competition for her first symphony. She composed several songs, one sung by Marian Anderson at her famous Lincoln Memorial concert in 1939. Following the 1933 premiere of her Symphony in E Minor, the orchestras of Detroit, Pittsburgh and Brooklyn performed subsequent compositions by Price.
Nearly 10 years after her death in 1953, a Chicago Elementary school took her name as a tribute to her legacy as a black composer. As a teacher in Little Rock, she had immense influence on many of her students.
Manuscripts, books and other papers belonging to Price were discovered in an abandoned Illinois home in 2009, and those works were secured by the University of Arkansas. Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and No 2, contained within the findings, were recorded in Fayetteville. The BBC symphony orchestra performed one of her “lost” compositions in London in March 2018. She’s also been the subject of recent articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker. A documentary film about Price's life and music has aired on PBS affiliate stations as well as at film festivals in the United States and in the United Kingdom.